Incivility in schools on the rise; less likely with proactive leaders

Nov. 28, 2017


A recent report from the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access looks at the impact of Trump administration rhetoric and actions on high school students.

“Teaching and Learning in the Age of Trump: Increasing Stress and Hostility in America’s High Schools” considers the following questions:

  • Have national political debates on topics such as immigration enforcement increased students’ stress and heightened students’ concerns about their well-being or the well-being of their families?
  • Have combative political dynamics at the national level contributed to incivility between students in schools and classrooms?
  • In what ways is student learning affected by heightened stress or incivility?
  • Do the impacts of the national political environment on student experiences differ depending on the demographics of the high schools they attend?

Author John Rogers and his research team conducted a survey to answer those questions in May 2017, during the first months of the Trump administration. The 1,535 teachers who responded to the survey teach in schools that are representative of public high schools in the United States in terms of student demographics and geographic location. The 10- to 15-minute survey asked multiple choice questions about student experiences during the period from January to May 2017.

The survey included an optional open-ended question for teachers to write about their thoughts regarding how their “classroom and school climate has changed this past year as a result of changes in national politics.”

Recorded findings from the study include:

  • Stress and concerns with welfare have increased, particularly in schools enrolling few White students. Fifty-one percent of teachers reported more students experiencing “high levels of stress and anxiety” than in previous years. Only 6.6 percent of teachers reported fewer students experiencing high stress than previous years.

A Pennsylvania teacher reported: “Many students were very stressed and worried after the election. They vocalized their worries over family members’ immigration status and healthcare, as well as LGBT rights.” Fifty-eight percent of teachers reported that some of their students had expressed concerns in relationship to proposals for deporting undocumented immigrants.

  • Polarization, incivility and reliance on unsubstantiated sources have risen, particularly in predominantly White schools. More than 20 percent of teachers reported heightened polarization on campus and incivility in their classrooms. A West Virginia social studies teacher explained that her students have interpreted politicians saying “it’s not important to be politically correct” to mean “I can say anything about anyone.” Forty-one percent of teachers reported that students were more likely than in previous years to introduce unfounded claims from unreliable sources.

A Missouri social studies teacher wrote: “It has been a terrible year for helping kids understand the structure of government. They come in ready to fight, full of bad information from Twitter and Facebook.”

  • A growing number of schools, particularly predominantly White schools, have become hostile environments for racial and religious minorities and other vulnerable groups. Nearly 28 percent of teachers reported an increase in students making derogatory remarks about other groups during class discussions.

Teachers described how the political environment “unleashed” virulently racist, anti-Islamic, anti-Semitic, or homophobic rhetoric in their schools and classrooms. An Indiana English teacher explained: “Individuals who do harbor perspectives of racism and bigotry now feel empowered to offer their views more naturally in class discussions, which has led to tension, and even conflict in the classroom.”

  • While some school leaders avoided issues related to the political environment, others moved proactively to create a tolerant and respectful school culture.

When leaders did not act, student behavior grew dramatically worse. School leadership made public statements this year about the value of civil exchange and understanding across lines of difference, according to 40.9 percent of teachers. The schools most likely to experience polarization and incivility were the least likely to have leaders responding to these issues proactively.

  • Educators can mitigate some of these challenges, but they need more support. More than 72 percent of teachers surveyed agreed that: “My school leadership should provide more guidance, support, and professional development opportunities on how to promote civil exchange and greater understanding across lines of difference.”

Nearly 92 percent agreed that: “national, state, and local leaders should encourage and model civil exchange and greater understanding across lines of difference.” Almost as many (83.9 percent) agreed that national and state leaders should “work to alleviate the underlying factors that create stress and anxiety for young people and their families.”

Access the report at https://goo.gl/YuGvjo.

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